It’s a fact of being in business that everyone will, at some point, come up against situations with clients which cause you to question whether it’s worth continuing the relationship.
While (hopefully!) if you’re running an agency, you genuinely enjoy helping other humans solve problems, sometimes you just can’t help everyone. There are certain barriers you’re not able to overcome.
Selfridge’s department store founder Harry Selfridge coined the phrase “the customer is always right” in 1909, and this has been grasped as a maxim by many customer-serving businesses since. However, there are numerous examples showing why “the customer is always right” is wrong.
This is not to argue that you shouldn’t be accommodating to customers where possible – if you fail to do so, you could lose business to competitors who provide a better level of service. But, you should know where to draw the line with customers; what are your hard limits in terms of tolerances?
We’ve got some suggestions.
#1. When Your Reputation Could Be On The Line
There are times when you might find a client who is asking you to create something or do something in a certain way that you know is wrong. Whether it’s a question of ethics or whether they want something made in a way that it ignores best practice and could end up coming back on you, this is a good sign it’s time to bow out.
Sacha Greif refers to “client-centered design,” where the client may want to design a website around their own preferences without taking the end user into consideration. This is a good example of a situation where your reputation could be on the line. If you went ahead and did exactly as the client asked, you already know you are creating something that might not work well as an end-product.
A high-profile question of ethics came up recently in the case of Apple refusing to create software to unlock a specific iPhone for the FBI. The argument is that such software could end up in the wrong hands and have the potential to unlock anyone else’s iPhone too. Obviously this is not only a potential risk and breach of privacy, but it puts Apple’s reputation on the line with their clients too.
You may not have to deal with the FBI, but if you’re being put in a situation where you disagree with the ethics or where you feel what you are being asked to do is a reputational risk, then cutting and running might be your only option if you can’t convince your client to change.
#2. When Clients Are Jerks
“We run more than 3 million people through our books every month. One or two of those people are going to be unreasonable, demanding jerks.” – Gordon Bethune (From Worst To First)
Your agency probably isn’t serving those volumes of people, but the fact is that jerks exist out there and you could come up against a genuine one. If you’re unfortunate enough that you didn’t discover this about them during initial talks, you’re left figuring out what to do with them.
Of course “jerk” is often defined according to the perceptions of the beholder; one person’s jerk may be another person’s dream client, but universal signs can include:
- Being overly abrasive
- Shouting/use of foul language with your team members.
- Giving contradictory instructions and never liking what you do either way.
- Using fear as a motivator, e.g. by saying “your recommendations better be spot-on the first time or you’re fired.” This leaves team members running around on eggshells.
The jerk client can be like a poison to your agency. They upset your staff, can cause resentment and often tend to take up unreasonable amounts of time.
Getting back to Gordon Bethune: “You can’t treat your employees like serfs. You have to value them … If they think that you won’t support them when a customer is out of line, even the smallest problem can cause resentment.”
So dropping the jerk client is more than likely doing both yourself and your employees a favor.
#3. When There Are Issues Over Payment
If you let payment issues slide for too long, pretty soon your agency is in the hole and scraping to turn a profit from the project.
Sometimes it’s not even the jerks who are poor with payment, but the clients who seem nice and you could picture yourself having a beer with. Those are the cases where people are often tempted to let payment issues slide for longer, because they otherwise like the client and want to keep them.
If you experience any of the following red-flags, it might be time to drop the client:
- They absolutely refuse to pay anything upfront.
- They want spec work for free as a “trial”
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- Their agreed payments are consistently late to the point where it affects the operation of your business.
- They are currently well-behind on payments.
- They want hefty discounts which mean you run the risk of making no profit on the project.
There are plenty of clients out there who are great with payment and happy to work with someone who can expertly take care of their problem. Don’t tolerate payment issues when you could be working with a reliable client.
#4. When They Don’t Have A Clear Plan
No matter how “nice” the client is, if they don’t have a clear business plan this can spell bad news for you if you have a contract with them.
Clients like this are often the ones who chop and change their ideas throughout a project, make last minute “urgent” requests and try to make their lack of planning an emergency on your part. Besides that, without a clear business plan there is often no real direction to a project and you can find yourself chasing your tail.
Projects like this are frustrating and don’t lead to a harmonious environment among your team. There’s also a good chance that without a good business plan, the business involved will fail anyway so it all will have been a waste of time.
#5. When They Aren’t Timely (But Want You To Stick To Original Timeframes)
This can be a huge sticking point between agencies and their clients: you sent something to the client for approval two weeks ago and heard nothing back from them until a day or two before the final version is due. They then want you to stick with the original agreed timeframes, even after you explain to them that the delay means it’s not possible.
If you have a client who is consistently putting you in a position where projects are held up because they don’t do their part, or wanting quick service at short notice, it might be time to show them the door…
#6. When Service Expectations Just Aren’t A Good Match
It is always up to you to set out expectations at the beginning of any project, including when you’ll do the work, how customers should communicate with you and any times you are unavailable. Sometimes when expectations aren’t a good match, it’s because you haven’t laid the right foundation in the first place. You may be able to resolve this by simply having a conversation with the client.
That being said, sometimes you find a client who acts like your business is a dedicated employee of theirs, expected to be available at all times and at any notice. Relationships like this often turn ugly if their expectations are not met. If a client doesn’t respect you or the boundaries you have set, it may be time to walk away.
While you should always strive to provide the best possible service to clients and meet their needs wherever you can, the old saying “the customer is always right” is not a sustainable idea and should not be the basis of your service standards.
There are times where you need to make a decision not to tolerate certain behaviors, even if that means losing the client. Any time where you and your team are not respected, your reputation may be at risk or the client is becoming a disproportionate time and financial burden, you might be better off walking away.
Have clear standards and expectations set up from the beginning and hopefully you won’t find yourself in this position too often!